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Costa Mesa reflects on homelessness efforts, braces for new wave of need from COVID-19

A homeless man sleeps on Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa in January 2019.
A homeless man sleeps in the 1800 block of Placentia Avenue in Costa Mesa during the January 2019 Orange County Point in Time count.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

While Costa Mesa has supported and housed 151 homeless individuals in the past year and a half, officials are bracing for a tsunami of need as citizens become unemployed and fail to maintain rental payments during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those were two important takeaways from a City Council study session Wednesday, in which leaders and staff grappled with finding ways to continue to make strides while partnering with agencies and other municipalities to coordinate a regional response to an increasing demand for services.

Asst. City Manager Susan Price — known in her former role as Orange County’s director of care coordination as the “Homeless Czar”— updated the council on progress made since a 2018 lawsuit accused several cities of penalizing homelessness through their law-making processes.

A settlement agreement reached later that year stipulated cities could not continue to enforce anti-encampment ordinances until they provided bridge shelters, where residents could access services that would help them find housing.

“The legal precedent that occurred in the county of Orange shifted the landscape for all of our cities,” Price said. “Some of the cities came forward because they were motivated to want to bring back a balance in their communities — now there are 10 cities in the county right now that are operating or building shelters.”

A city street outreach team has helped connect individuals with services, shelter options and other opportunities, providing housing for 83 people. The city’s temporary bridge shelter at Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene has served more than 235 and housed 68 individuals since April 2019, including 20 since the pandemic began.

A 70-bed bridge shelter being built in Costa Mesa could be finished by January and ready to accept clients by March 2021.
(Screenshot by Sara Cardine)

The city has also dedicated $11.4 million to acquire and retrofit a 12,285-square-foot portion of an industrial warehouse on Airway Avenue to accommodate a 70-bed shelter and full-service kitchen with office and intake space. Construction could be completed in January, allowing for occupancy as soon as March 23.

City officials considered the impact of the coronavirus on Costa Mesa’s homeless population, as Price described the many efforts made to keep vulnerable populations safe during the pandemic.

Local fire crews saved three Costa Mesa residents trapped in an apartment fire Saturday morning, then later doused a small brush fire that had broken out in Talbert Park.

The city’s temporary bridge shelter reduced its population when the pandemic struck, creating a Motel Isolation Program for older individuals and those with underlying health conditions that serves about 15 people daily. Price said the program appears to be working.

“We have had no positive COVID-19 test among our homeless population or our staff at the shelter,” she told council members.

Despite Costa Mesa’s best efforts, outreach workers and enforcement officers have started to see an uptick in the number of displaced and financially insecure families in and around Costa Mesa.

Those who work with clients in need are reporting a massive increase in the number of residents and families reporting food and housing insecurity as unemployment continues to rise during the pandemic.

A collaboration of local churches, businesses and organizations has created an Enough for All Fund and is seeking donations to help people who need temporary assistance to pay bills and stay afloat. So far, the fund has raised more than $700,000 to assist about 690 local families, but had to cut off applicants months ago due to the overwhelming requests for help.

“We’re going to see an increasing number of families living in their cars, truly people in our community experiencing homelessness,” said Councilwoman Andrea Marr. “It’s a big spectrum of folks — and if anything, that spectrum is only going to get larger as more people face some kind of crisis in the coming months.”

City officials said they are currently working on a gap rental assistance program that could come before the council in October. The program is aimed to help residents cover missed rental payments, as California’s extended moratorium on evictions is set to expire Feb. 1.

Protections against eviction are extended by five months for California renters facing financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Costa Mesa is also looking to partner with other cities in Orange County to create a regional safety net of programs and services that could operate with coronavirus-related agency funding.

“People are struggling to pay their rent right now,” said Councilman Manuel Chavez. “We need to make sure they’re going to have all avenues available to them so they’re not going to be homeless when this is all over.”

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